Written by Kara De Bruin
Iowa may not be the land of ten thousand lakes, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have any. Located in southeastern Iowa, Lake Red Rock is the largest lake in the state. Named after what used to be a nearby frontier town, this lake area provides a variety of events and recreational opportunities for the surrounding communities and those who enjoy the outdoors.
At normal levels, the lake covers approximately 15,000 acres and can expand beyond that during periods of heavy rain. This massive reservoir was formed as a result of the Red Rock Dam, that was built in 1969 to control flooding downstream and the surrounding areas. 2019 marks the 50th anniversary for the dam since its completion. It has since saved nearly 1.4 billion dollars in flood damages according to the 2018 Lake Red Rock Annual Report.
The dam was built at this location because of the number of floods that occurred in the area, primarily caused by heavy rains. A study of the river system found this location and another area upstream on the Des Moines River (Saylorville Lake and Dam), to be the best sites to reduce flooding.
The dam has since been effective at controlling floods and is equipped with five large Tainter gates and 14 sluice gates. These large gates are what is first seen when looking at the dam, but in reality, they are rarely actually opened. The 14 smaller gates, which are below the water, are used most often to pass the water outflow from the dam. For those who want to see the inner workings of the dam up close, it is available for tours by appointment for groups of 10 or more with a US Army Corp of Engineers park ranger.
“While there are things that don’t change over time, the dam and its history is very interesting to share with people,” Tracy Spry, US Army Corp of Engineers Park Ranger said. “We provide tours for school groups and the general public and that’s always a fun thing for people to learn about and experience first hand.”
Educational tours and controlling flood waters isn’t the dam’s only purpose. It is currently being retrofitted by the Missouri River Energy Services to produce hydroelectric power. This is a project which has been in the works for several years and is expected to be completed in 2020. The amounts of electricity generated will depend on the water levels at the time, but the main mission of the dam will still be flood risk management.
Surrounded by the largest piece of public land in Iowa, Red Rock Lake is also a hub for fishing and recreational opportunities. The public land includes natural forests, several parks and campgrounds. These are under the operation of multiple agencies including the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Marion County Conservation Board. The partnership of these agencies allows for all of the parks to exist and flourish.
“Tourism is key for Marion County and the ripples of Red Rock influence those way beyond the Marion County area,” Perry Thostenson, US Army Corp of Engineers Supervisory Natural Resources Specialist said. “In 2017 we had nearly 800,000 visitors, at least that we have been able to document, [but] I suspect it has been more than that.”
A common draw for tourists are the parks along the lake and each offer several recreational opportunities. North Overlook Park and Whitebreast Park have beaches where visitors can swim. There are also several campground areas, and the Red Rock Marina offers multiple docks along with canoe, kayak and pontoon rentals.
“The lake has so many things to do and gives you so many opportunities to get outdoors,” Mackenzie Becker, frequent lake visitor and Pella resident said. “One of my favorite things to do is pull down the camper for a weekend and have fires with friends, play cards and ride bikes around the lake.”
Beyond offering natural parks and scenic trails there are also several events held at the lake throughout the year. These include fishing tournaments, 5K races and bike rides, but the largest event is the annual Lake Red Rock Balloon Festival. This festival features over 30 different hot air balloons. Spectators can watch the balloons from North Overlook Beach or from boats on the lake. This year the festival will be July 12-14 and will include a celebration of the Lake’s anniversary.
“It’s a special event this year at Lake Red Rock because it is our 50th anniversary year of operations and we are planning various activities that will coincide with that,” Thostenson said. “We are dovetailing some of that celebration with the Balloon Fest.”
With warmer weather quickly approaching Lake Red Rock could be a great addition to summer plans. From fishing and boating to camping, swimming and even hot air balloons, a day at Lake Red Rock is sure to be a dam good time.